The Wayback Machine -


Living at Canton Island

An extract from
Canton Island - Aerial Crossroads of the South Pacific
by Carl Oates

A review of the history of Canton Island reveals that man in positions of responsibility make continuing efforts to record and understand the equatorial climate. Three hundred years of surface ship crossings of the Equator had yielded little information about the atmosphere about the ocean. In the aeronautical era, there were at first upper air soundings, recording winds aloft by tracking drifting balloons in their ascent, this together with the recording of surface temperature and cloud types in the sky coverage. Rainfall amounts and dates were carefully noted. The colonists did this work between 1936 and 1940 until the newly-established Pan American seaplane base took over this effort. During the War, military meteorologists methodically supervised this climate recording. During these years, radios were added and went aloft with the free flight of the balloon. By this method temperatures and atmospheric pressure variations at attitudes were added and recorded. 

Canton Rain Does Count

Nevertheless, these efforts lacked continuity and clear objectives. Experience showed that forecasting the next day's weather for Canton, for incoming flight planning purposes, was mostly predictable. But this was distinctly secondary to the need to know when rain might come, how much, and how often. The need was in having to produce costly distilled water. Distilling salt water, first in 1940 for 50 residents, then a hundred, and later thousand by 1943, became the dominant reason for understanding the local weather cycles. Pan Am managers, and nearly every C.A.A. island manager to follow thereafter, made studies of fresh water needs, how much was used, how to use brackish water, the design of building roof catchment systems, constructed surface catchment possibilities, and other storage solutions. The conclusions eventually focused on what should have been done initially: to construct catchment systems on all the buildings being built on the northside, as had been on the southside in 1940, and especially on the family homes. Sufficient rain could be expected from March through August to provide most of the fresh water needs. For the other six months, based on a conservative annual rainfall of nine inches per year, stills should be operated, or be available on standby. It took more than twelve years of island occupancy to arrive at this assessment, and to achieve some cost-saving advantages of operating saltwater distillation units only during periods of acute shortage. For most people in areas of modern inconvenience, this would be a "ho hum" issue, but in Canton Island or anywhere with a similar climate, pure and fresh water is of preeminent importance and bathing only in saltwater is an economic necessity. In the 1940-41 petrol, much experience on water availability and water use was learned, but this information was not passed on during the war. The building of permanent housing on the northside between 1950-52 took advantage of the study and assessment done by C.A.A. manager Wally Backus. In addition to the rain water and sea water, the study also introduced by use of a third water classification - brackish water. This less-saline or less-adulterated water was carefully stored by Nature, only six feet before the coral surface. It was found to have many uses although its salt content was somewhat variable. Managing an island airport of this nature demanded continuous learning, changing, and adjustments. Residents even became accustomed to viewing an outdoor movie during an occasional rain shower while sitting, not under the stars, but under a warm and dripping wet poncho. 

This colorful map was an attempt by Pan American in the 1950s to tell the  whole
story of Canton in one small wall display. At the top left are the two national flags
symbolizing the Condominium status. Birds, airplanes, fish (including flying 
of fish), were examples of what could be of interest to the viewing passengers.

Upgrading Northside Living

Residents living and working on the northside experienced slowly improving living conditions. At the time, they were termed "creature comforts" by visiting manager-evaluators who had never lived in a tent at the windward end of a runway on a deserted airport (Bob Caldwell in 1946) or to those no-less-hardy souls who inhabited tired Dallas huts (Fisher Associates construction workers in 1949). Northside living was comfortless until these same construction people finished the government housing units in 1950-52. The C.A.A.'s planning, for permanent housing for families, bachelors, and visitors, began immediately after the runway was completed at the end of 1949.

However, the majority of the island's support staff did not begin to live on the northside until 1952. The host, Pan American Airways, remained at the old seaplane base on the southside for only another three years, undoubtedly believing that the airline would somehow acquire and assign for South Pacific service a new airplane type with Canton overfly capability.

Unfortunately, extended flight range capability came very late in the era of piston engine powered airplanes with extended range capabilities. Pan Am's Boeing 707-300 jets, ordered in 1955, came into service towards the end of 1958, only a year behind the Douglas DC-7C, the last of the airline's propeller airplanes. A9irline operating coasts for ground support organizations such as Canton in the pre-jet era were invariably controlled by the performance limitations or capabilities of the flight equipment assigned to the route. After flying across the wide Pacific for more than 20 years, the airliner industry (and Pan Am in particular) had still not solved the payload range equation adequately. Costly refueling stops remained on some schedules, and one was at Canton Island. 

Displaying an open sea catch of "Ono" in Polynesian, or Wahoo.
Photographs on the Southside, near the tennis court, in 1954.

International Celebrations

This island crossroads, now inhabited with families of many background and nationalities, began to celebrate various annual events. One of the early and more prominent celebrations in the "new town" on the northside was the Coronation of Britain's Queen Elizabeth. The historic expression of "The Empire on which the Sun Never Sets" could not have been more appropriate for an island-wide celebration which took place on 2 June 1953. The U.S. mainlanders and Hawaiian American residents joined the British District Officer, islanders from the Gilbert and Ellis Islands, Fiji, the Samoas, New Zealand, and Australia in honoring the ascent to the throne of the new Queen. The event was covered by a live radio broadcast from London. The Fijians assembled in their native costumes for a ce4remonial dance. The British police force, both of them, marched in their full dress uniform. there was food and drink for all.

This event set a precedent. In the years following, everyone honored everyone else's important national holidays, even the American Fourth of July. The calendar of events became somewhat choked at times, but the idea added new meaning to understanding and living in an international family. This was a crucially and specially important step, made by people who lived close to each other and who had to work with each other day-in and day-out. Rather like the situation in Antarctica today, ethnic and national sensitivities gave way to common-sense needs, devoid of political pride.

A fishing party shows off the catch, from the deck of the
President Taylor, a year before the passenger liner was burned out in 1948.

Airline Upgrading

Following the paving of the runway, QANTAS, Canadian Pacific, and Pan American each sought to serve the South Pacific with more capacity (seats and cargo) and faster airplanes with greater range. However, upgrading was a slow process as the newer flight equipment was used on the routes with greater traffic demand than the less populated Australia and New Zealand offered. Often forgotten is the fact that the population of Australia and New Zealand combined is roughly the same as that of Greater New York. The South Pacific, therefore, always had to wait for new airplanes until most other routes had been upgraded. QANTAS, with its main effort concentrated on the westbound route to London, eventually used an upgraded Lockheed Constellation. Pan Pam Eventually deployed the Boeing B-377 Stratocruiser only after concentrated services across the Atlantic and the North Pacific. Somewhat shorter flight times resulted, but neither airplane had the range for year-round Canton over-fly capability in all conditions of wind and temperature, then much sought-aft4r by each airline management to improve passenger service. Thus, the financial burden of intermediate landings for fuel alone would have to continue. Nevertheless, this second generation of post0war designed airplanes did offer approximately 40 per cent more seats on each flight. In Pan Am's strategy, the introduction of the Stratocruiser also offered another attractive amenity, a downstairs lounge. This lounge gave the passenger another place to go, another seat to sit in and share drinks with friends. This Clipper lounge was on a lower deck, accessed from the cabin via a short circular stair descent.

The distances between Pacific islands were still the same, but Pan Am's Juan Trippe reached back to the success of the 1940s Boeing flying boat era for a little bit extra and thus give passengers some diversion to make each hundred miles go by a little faster.

QANTAS's sleek Lockheed Constellation sat on the ramp well above the ground - a pleasing picture of Twentieth Century aerodynamic design. In the air, the Constellation was as streamlined as any avian creation. The Pan Am Stratocruiser, on the other hand, seemed to sit on the ramp, almost squatting on its bulk next to the paving. Its four enormous engines and propellers filled the viewers gaze. The B-377 had a blunt nose, presenting a picture of an airplane aggressively pushing the air out of the way. The contrast between the two aircraft on the ground seemed to be considerable. But in truth, passenger airplanes do not earn their way on the ground but in the air, where they were more evenly matched in speed, comfort, and in passenger amenities.

Initially, both types had mechanical reliability problems to learn about, fix, and overcome. The Constellation had to maintain its sleek design while growing in both fuselage and wing length into a carrying capacity that would make it profitable. The Straocruiser was beset by engine problems, but besides the novelty of the lounge, it was noted for lift and carrying capacity.

On 8 November 1952 on article appeared in Business Week recognizing the B-377's carrying capacity. It was the brainchild of passenger Jim Francis, a fisheries researcher from Honolulu. Why not tuck some of Canton's plentiful fish into the ample holds of the Stratocruisers in transit and try to tap the market for fresh fish in Honolulu? Experimental shipments with a thermograph recording the hold temperature proved successful. Resident native resident islanders used primitive but effective catch methods, scaring the fish into the lagoon shoreline shallows where they were quickly netted, decapitated, filleted, packed, and chilled for shipping. In the first half of the year, Marine Products Co. shipped 45,000 lb. of mostly mullet each week using three of Pan Am's northbound flights. Business Week reported that "within 24 hours of the time they were caught at Canton many of the fish are on Honolulu dinner tables." A change in the Condominium policy banning non-aviation activities was made by the U.S. and British governments to allow this commercial fish business to fly forward.

One further note on the upgrading of passenger airplanes introduc3ed in this period concern the Lockheed L-49 which over the years was "stretched" into developed models to carry more passengers and to carry them further. However, the Boeing competitor airplane was designed to fit both military and civil roles. A family of military uses included versions modified to do a variety of services; as an air-to-air refueling tanker, the KC-97; as a military transport for passengers or cargo, the C-97; or as the civil passenger airplane, the B-377. This family of airplane models each contained the number seven in its designation, a tradition that the company has maintained since 1933.

Finger Posts

Before and during the Second World War, Pacific islands often displayed signposts to indicate the mileage to the "next" island north or south. Canton had one such sign on the boardwalk from the Clipper flying boat mooring in 1940. Another "crossroads" sign of this type rested above the entrance to the terminal building on the landplane northside during the war years. These signs were popular with the thousands of military men, civilians, and airplane passengers who moved through the island, whether in war or peace, business or pleasure. For a time these signs, and a little later the modern version of the finger-post, symbolized for the passenger the landing at a remote place in the middle of a long journey. Many of these first-time overseas travelers recorded the brief visit with a photograph of the finer-post pointing out the direction to destination(s) and mileage distances to the city at journey's end. This popular method of recording a landing at the Canton Crossroads reached its peak in 1955. Readers of the National Geographic magazine issue of January viewed a picture of a traveler peering at a world map while facing an elaborate finer post with twenty city-direction and distance markers. When first installed, it towered to the height of the adjacent passenger lounge. Fingers pointed out to city destinations such at Nome, Alaska, 6,647 miles, and Johannesburg, 16,190 miles (see page xiii).

In the decade that followed, with the introduction of the jet airplane's speed and phenomenal range, the world seemed to shrivel in size. By the 1960s desert atolls in mid-Pacific were seldom needed. The courageous airmen of an earlier era, Lester Maitland, Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith and Edwin Musick and their crews had shown the way. But for a while, other adventures and travelers still needed to call Canton the Pacific Crossroads.

Nautical Destructions

One group of adventures who came to the island was a party of salvage specialists who were interested in recovering and marketing scrap steel from the burned-out President Taylor. In the early and mid-1950s, there was a worldwide shortage of steel production capacity. Some of the shortage was relieved by the scrap market of many ships, heavy equipment, facilities, and warehouses left idle and rusting away in the Pacific basin at the end of the war. The President Taylor was a candidate for such scrap metal. A salvage firm of adventurers from Portland, Oregon, boldly acquired and refurbished an idle, steel yacht, the Andradite. The three partners had been working part-time in wartime use as an OSV (an ocean-station vessel). It was stationed in mid- Atlantic, making weather observations and providing rescue services for airplanes on patrol or flying actions the Atlantic during the latter days of the war. The vessel was painted in Navy gray and its luxury interior was removed. After the partners had restored the vessel to its earlier civil and luxury status, the tour operator who had planned to put the vessel into service decided against the venture. The partners then elected to put the vessel to work as a salvage ship, a working base for themselves, and a headquarters for the workers who were reducing the President Taylor to steel scrap. The yacht was renamed the Caronia. The partners bought the President Taylor from the U.S. Maritime Commission at a public auction, paying $5,200 for the salvage rights. Jennie Booth Johnson, a secretary to one of the partners, signed on as a member of the salvagers. She would help to sail to Canton Island and then become the secretary for the organization. At the end of the venture, Ms. Johnson wrote an extensive article for the Saturday Evening Post magazine describing the more-than-a-year of living on the Caronia and working at many tasks while the vessel was moored in Canton's lagoon.

In an excerpt from her article she describes the recruiting of the crew and the beginning of the trip.

I typed the wonderful little at which appeared in a yachting magazine. This read: "South Pacific: Co Adventurers invited, Group of young yachtsmen, holding clear title to a large intact steamship stranded South Pacific island, will depart shortly in our own 300 ton motor vessel...eight months salvage operation... additional working partners willing to lend their time and money in venture offering probable substantial profits to all concerned.

...I guess I was no special oddity among the assortment of personnel which waved back at Portland as the Caronia, set sail, complete to a piano, seven staterooms and seven tile baths. Actually, this was a seagoing partnership with ten men and Yours Truly comprising the Taylor Salvors which possessed a charter of the Caronia, a contract for salvaging the President Taylor, and a yacht full of supplies, wives, children, dogs, and problems.

The three original partners were skilled in welding, rigging, and maintaining mechanical equipment. They were joined by an experienced sea captain, a deep sea diver, radio operator, cook, naval architect, former bank employee, and artist, and Ms. Johnson. The sectary to the Taylor Salvors possessed a way with words in composing the saga of the salvors experiences at Canton. This recounting will remain brief in both facts and int eh selection of excerption - scraps, both here and there from her own marrative.

The Salvors were off to a friendly start from Portland will the Canton family even before arriving. The Caronia carried 1,200 pounds of surface mail to rely on surface shipping, however, casual, to carry the far less expensive and bulky mail. The surface mail on board was made known by radio when the vessel was a few days out from arrival at Canton. Also, Captain Olsen of the Caronia confirmed his authorization to marry American citizens, and had agreed to perform a marriage ceremony for two islanders after arrival. This series of radio communications exposed further to the partners on board the Caronia the disjointed and somewhat deprived nature of the Canton Island life style. It had two post offices, one British and one American, no baking service, no regular surface mail services, and an administration that was not officially authorized to do certain civil work, such as presiding over a matrimonial service. And this was only the beginning of the oddities that the Salvors were to learn after the Caronia tied up in the lagoon near to the water access to the Taylor.  

Johnson says "We finally docked the Caronia inside the lagoon, all of us on edge to board the Taylor, which was the most prominent thing in a land and seascape without other interruptions... When I finally boarded the Taylor, I'll confess that the excitement of adventure had to fight to stay alive... A fire-still unexplained-had burned through amidships in 1949. This made the dismantling somewhat easier, but it certainly didn't help the Taylor's appearance. Ash and burned streamers of wood blocked passage though the dining salon and staterooms... Rickety iron ladders through holds long open to the weather provided the only routes from the deck to deck."

The Taylor salvage crew early in their investigation found a spare propeller blade, "4,840 pounds of lovely manganese-bronze" which was sold for $677. This was offset by a bill from the southside still of Pan Am for $1,400, drinking water at three cents per gallon. The Salvors quickly invested in their own still, a surplus unit from the British District Officer. It was set up on the small dock next to the Caronia, taking away the quiet of the star light night with its saltwater pump grinding away and obliterating any glamorous notions of tropical nights with lagoon waters lapping at the sides of the yacht.

With the skill of experience, hired Gilbertese labor and a cable-line rigged from ship to shore, the superstructure of the ship was cut away with torches and transferred into three heaps of scrap and ready for sale on shore. The bad news came to the Salvors when they began patching the holes in the hull, preparatory to floating it. At this point, a large crack was discovered below the waterline which would not permit insurers to cover a tow of the remains of the vessel to Formosa (Taiwan). The stripped hull would have been worth a quarter-off-a-million dollars on arrival in Taiwan. This discovery cracked the Taylor Salvors partners as well. Johnson writes: "Our job was two-thirds complete - but the last third was mostly under water."

A number of the young partners recovered their shares in cash and left the island, but a hard-as-steel core remained. They had an alternate plan. When the last bit of steel could be cut away, the Taylor would be floated as originally planned, but then hauled up on the beach with her own anchor winch "so that machinery in the bolter and engine rooms as well as the underwater portions of the hull can be salvaged." Ever the optimist, Jennie Booth Johnson reported to the remaining partners that the first year's sales slightly exceeded expenses. As well as there was a pile of steel on the dock for sale. But...

Alas and alack, the market price for scrap steel descended as the remaining Salvors removed all the steel that could be cut above the ship's waterline. After almost 18 months of hard work in the hot sun, the remaining partners gave up. The Taylor never tugged its way ashore with its own anchor winch. The Caronia never left its mooring either. It caught fire and night scattering the remaining residents on shore, and eventually back to the mainland by air. This one time, the U.S. Cross Guard did not come to the rescue immediately, but a year later they towed the Coronia a mile or two offshore and put her down into t deepwater grave. As a diversion from the island routines, residents took to boats and out to watch the sinking. Afterwards, resident fishermen and women mourned the loss of two go9od fishing platforms as both the President Taylor and the Coronia had been held in the tidal flow to the lagoon, the most productive fishing places on the island.

A New Town

In 1955, the new town on the northside was showing off its new family homes, a restaurant, a commissary open to all, a U.S. Post Office, a school with 29 students, a fire department with trained personnel, a hospital/clinic, and some appointees of civil authority. Howell Walker, writing tin the January 1955 National Geographic, beautifully summarized in words and in artfully composed photographs the physical features of this new town. This author even let his many readers know that the southside area was now the quest suburb to the bustling town to the north. The new towns had approximately 200 people while the southside still retained 80 residents. The southside suburb contained a British compound with a number of recently-fabricated islands-style homes and the Pan American hotel and staff-housing area. Pan Am moved to new facilities adjacent to the terminal building during the next year, abandoning long held installation, many dating back to 1939.

Local Customs

Canton Island's new town and its diverse national and ethnic population began to develop some practical and curious customs. Time, seasons, and the calendar year: all these had different meanings from the "home place" on the globe. The twelve hours of sunlight each day throughout the year, the season-less sameness calendar, and the Crossroads location adjacent to the Dateline and the Equator led men and families to think differently. Communications beyond the reef's foamy-white borders, inventions such as television, fads and fashions, trends in education and commerce: all these developments in life style tended to move on more quickly in most of the civilized world. Keeping up with the outside world of yesterday and tomorrow was always more limited and limiting. Limited for example, because a newspaper from Auckland, Sydney, or Honolulu was usually rumpled, three days old, and lacking part of an important long article which was continued on page 6, but had been carelessly cast aside by the second or third reader along the way.

The limiting factor was the isolation that greatly inhibited the ability of the island's residents to move forward with the rest of "his world's" customs, culture and conviviality. In this coral-bound climate, unusual local customs developed.

Young single men, on a six month assignment, counted time by the number of haircuts received rather than looking at a calendar. Surplus, abandoned and now 10-year-old U.S. military jeeps were always in demand. Although salt air and coral corroded these ruggedly-built machines, they still sold for $400. This was, and had been, the standard price since the end of the war. The payment for a jeep was much like a user fee. Why change it? Otherwise, money circulated little. There was no bank, and no need for one. Except for postage stamps, and sundry items at the cooperative island store, there was little to do with money as there were no fees or tickets for boat rides, movies, or local telephone calls. Children developed little sense of money or its worth.   

Howell Walker, writing of the 1955 National Geographic visit, "one one occasion a resident was counting a few dollar bills and some small change. Her young daughter looked on, fascinated. 'Mummy, can I have one' the child asked, pointing to a penny."

There was no tax on tobacco or alcohol, and no tipping for services rendered. One inconvenience, however, was in making a long distance telephone call. Calling Hawaii or one of the continents beyond was another matter. The caller had to find a local amateur radio "ham," off duty and willing to go on the air to call one of his fellow amateurs on the appropriate mainland. The Canton caller had to be patient with two operators and await the second operator's "patching through" to the dialed member in the sophisticated world beyond. Cumbersome, and time-consuming though it was, such an amenity was often a rare and rewarding experience to a lonely resident wishing to hear the voice of a loved one in the larger world beyond the mid-Pacific Crosswords.

Beyond nightly movies on the northside and in suburbia across the water, the local radio station operated, somewhat unattended, with no talk show host at the microphone. The station aired automatic: broadcast music throughout the day and evening. Records, and in later years, tapes, were supplied through funds from the family island club. The radio station's voice announcements referred to the station as being a part of the "Hermit Crab Network." thus pretending to be one of a number affiliated beyond ocean limits.

The manner in which two hundred people could supply themselves and each other with such services was by taking on a second, volunteer job, using knowledge, ingenuity, and skills brought with them from the wider world. Governments and airlines helped, but the people with feet on the coral created the community. Some examples from the mid-i950s: the Pan Am manager was usually appointed by the Justice Department as the U.S. Commissioner; the C.A.A.'s Island Manager often served as a U.S. Deputy Marshall, wives of resident employees served as teachers at the school. A doctor and nurse/wife ran the three-bed hospital. (There was no dental facility on the island. this resulted in a flight to Fiji or Honolulu). At various times, the wife of one of the American contingent served as Postmaster for U.S.-destined mail. In 1956, U.S. domestic airmail stamps cost fifteen cents. Canton, designated as a U.S. possession (although a Condominium) was accorded the domestic airmail rate. And the Gilbertese clerk of the British District Officer handled international mails. The British postal service included a service desk in the passenger terminal during airplane transits. A postal card with a colorful Gilbert and Ellis Island stamp affixed was a favorite among travelers.

The new town was a unique community. One resident wrote,

Life was good. Fishing, tennis, pool playing, swimming, and skin diving were favorite activities. The outdoor movies came to the new town via air with at least one new film each week. There was lots of bridge-playing. The C.A.A. and Pan American both had clubs, although the Pan Am one was much smaller. There was the obligatory bingo and dance at C.A.A. every Saturday night. Celebrating holidays were the 'big thing.' We recognized all American, British, Australian, New Zealand, and Fijian national events. Hardly any week went by without an island remembrance of someone's homeland and well-liked annual event. As a condominium, we were exempt from taxes and customs duties celebrating was cheap. 

Among the photographs is one of the M.E. Lombardi, a Standard Oil Co. tanker that supplied aviation, automobile fuels, and oils, periodically. In the 1950s, this service reverted to Caltex whose tankers also served the island in a limited way as  cargo carrier. The C.A.A.'s commissary and kitchen were resupplied by the tanker visits also. For the Pan Am families, now living on the northside, food arrived every week by air from Fiji and Honolulu. The British D.O.'s compound was given service with food and other supplies by a small inter-island freighter that called at the Phoenix Group periodically.

Deep Freeze

The International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957-8 was proposed by the International Council of Scientific Unions and promulgated by many governments of the world. Scientists around the world desired to focus on studies of the South Pole and the Antarctic continent, as had been done for the North Pole in 1932-3. The preparation began in the years 1953-5. More than 200 scientists from many countries were committed to various studies, mainly involving glaciology, geomagnetism, gravity, ionospheric physics, longitude/latitude determination, meteorology, oceanography, and rocketry. A technical panel was set up to attempt to launch an artificial satellite into orbit around the earth.

IGY was the abbreviation for what was a large order of scientific inquiry. In fact, the "Y" in IGY actually contemplated an eighteen - month period, from July 1957 until December 1958. This book's subsection is named Deep Freeze as that is the name given to the U.S. Navy's series of annual exercises and studies made in the Antarctic. The Navy's commitment to the IGY was to provide logistics support with its ships, aircraft, and shore-based equipment. Early in 1957, the C.A.A. manager of Canton was advised to expect an increase in the number of flights passing through Canton during that extended year of the IGY. The major route from the U.S. was from the West Coast to New Zealand via Honolulu, Canton, Fiji, and then to Christchurch. This city on the South Island of New Zealand became the staging point for most Antarctic continent flights from the United States, and from some other countries as well.

The Pan Am manager to Canton Island in the period of the IGY was Stan Orrell. He described briefly the airport operation at that time.

We were there to provide transit services. As I recall, there were three scheduled flights per week through Honolulu to Sydney. If required, we could do engine changes and most other airplane maintenance. We would handle QANTAS on any diversions that they might have. This happened maybe once a week. We also handled any airline charters. Rooms were provided to military personnel en route to or from McMundo Sound, Antarctica. We got a lot of layovers of Royal Air Force flights to and from Easter Island.

We had a dormitory style 'hotel.' had two large dormitory rooms, one female and the other male. The rooms featured cots, thin mattresses, clean sheets, open showers and stalled toilets in each of the two rooms. Also we had two private rooms for women traveling with babies, or with the elderly. We had 57 beds to work with... Normally, we just provided juice and snack services for transit passengers, but we were equipped to feed 60 passengers for three days in case of an emergency. All non-Pan Am or QANTAS passengers were fed at the C.A.A. dining room.

Pan Am provided transit services to a number of U.S. Navy flights destined for McMundo Sound, Antarctica. Early in the IGY, and among the Navy logistics operations was a Pan Am Stratocrluiser, Clipper America, MC1030V. This Boeing B-377 was chartered to carry passengers to McMundo Sound, and would be the first large civil airliner to land in Antarctica. A reproduction of a color painting by John J. McCoy depicting this event appears on an adjacent page of this chapter. The reproduction's caption gives some details of this arrival. Not mentioned in the information with the reproduced painting is the statement that Captain Savory was selected to command this flight because of his many years of landing on ice and blowing snow in Alaska while serving as Chief Pilot for Pan Am's Alaska Region. In a modest remark afterwards, the Captain briefly mentioned that landing at McMundo Sound was different from Alaska runways only in that there were no cut evergreen trees on the snow piles marking the limits of the landing area, long a feature of marking an Alaskan runway. Much has been written about the IGY, and suffice it to say here that both Pan American Airways and Canton Island had an important role in supporting the scientific research in Antarctica during the International Geophysical Year.

Clipper America, first airliner to service Operation Deep Freeze, arrives
at McMundo Sound, Antarctica, 15 October 1957.
The aircraft was a Boeing B-377 Stratocruiser (courtesy: Pan American Airways)

A Shrinking World

The brief listing of events that transpired around the world during the IGY demonstrates the rapid pace of scientific and technical advancement. The planning for the IGY year included an effort in launch a satellite into space. While the scientists were planning how they could launch such a probe, the Soviet Union had already accomplished this feat. Two nations were only a year away from starting jet airplane passenger service across the North Atlantic. Within the following two years, refueling stops at mid-Pacific islands would be ended. Jet airplane engine design had now caught up with the range limit problem. A new frontier was reached space exploration and Canton Island would slowly become no more than "a crossing over place" - a station of many electronic signals, but otherwise a largely silent intersection.

Fish in all Dimensions and Denominations

The first mention of fish and fishing was recorded in the reporting on the 1937 Eclipse Expedition. The descriptions, recorded in the National Geographic while neither extensive nor scientific, were written with enthusiasm and a sense of awe; the enthusiasm because the fish catching was so easy, the fish so abundant; the awe reflecting the seemingly endless variety of aquatic creatures, large and small, hauled in, sighted, or lost from the net or hook. In later years (1973) scientists counted 264 fish species in 50 families in the lagoon and "inshore" habitat.

One of the favorite fishing spots was the President Taylor as it commanded the entrance to the original, natural, channel. Part of the Denver Museum account (1949) says that one evening, Bailey and Wischers and Trewhitt (the Pan Am manager) joined some of the Gilbert Islanders. "Every time a chunk of bait was cast overboard, the offering was enthusiastically received. Fishes of colors rivaling the rainbow, ranging from red snappers a foot long to sharks seven feet in length, were dragged up the rusted sides of the once proud luxury liner, until Trewhitt, somewhat plaintively remarked, 'You know, I get kinda tired of fish.'

The children and many of the women on Canton have excellent success fishing from the ferry dock, and occasionally the youngsters get hold of fish which they are unable to land. We watched a small boy bring a large rock cod along the pier and gaff him, a fish so heavy that he could not hold the struggling animal in the air to be photographed.

The Pan Am employees rigged up seats and harness to attach to one of their launches for trolling, and the Baileys (from the Denver Museum) accompanied Dick Slater (the Pan Am manager) and others on an early morning excursion along the coast. The fisher sat in seats with rods held in sockets in the harness, and when the wahoo struck, they usually came out of the water in their first frantic efforts to escape. Several were taken ranging from twenty to thirty pounds each.

At the opposite end of the fishing spectrum is the wartime report of the simple method for harvesting fish from the lagoon's inshore waters. Ken Roberts wrote, "one of the interesting sights was to watch those native islanders catching flying fish. They would position themselves out on their dock and when a school of flying fish would swim nearby, some of the group would beat the water with branches. This would frighten the fish and some of them would leap out of the water and sail onto the dock where other members of the group would catch them by hand. How's that for smart?

More than a decade later is this quotation from Pan Am's last station manager, Stan Orrell:

I loved the life there, the fishing and diving. A couple of memories that stand out; the head of the Steinhardt Aquarium, in Golden Gate Park (San Francisco) asked us to find some rare tropical fish. With the help of everyone, we found them and shipped them back on the Caltex tanker. They were put on display and we received some publicity and acknowledgements. But there were times when the barracuda would come into the lagoon,  literally hundreds of them forming a silver wall. This was a time when everyone including the Fijian, Gilbert, and Ellice islanders would get out of the water. 

The New Town Begins to Change

Commercial and military aviation continued to make rapid changes. Fewer scheduled commercial passenger and military flights needed an intermediate refueling stop at Canton. During 1957-8, using later version of the Lockheed Constellation, QANTAS made fewer stops as it was able to fly non-stop from Fiji to Honolulu with sufficient reserves of fuel. Other aeronautical uses of eastern Pacific equatorial islands began to take place during the same years.

Britain began to test atomic weapons, first at Malden island in 1957 and later just north of the Equator at Christmas Island in 1958. Each island was more than one thousand miles southeast or northeast of Canton, posing no contamination threat to Canton. The tests were above ground, but occurred before the international atmospheric test ban treaty. Most of this series of atomic weapon tests was done during with the period of the IGY. They were conducted in secrecy and unrelated to the geophysical cooperation of many nations wherein scientific results were to be shared. However, the atomic weapons testing was yet another and profound evidence of a shrinking world, and a changing use of Pacific islands. Even more profound changes were to come in the decade to follow.

Clipper Glory

This was an expression that developed and was used over a 20 year period by employees of Pan American's Pacific Division. When the employees spoke of Clipper glory they were referring to a situation or condition in which they, or a group of employees, had done a service for customers or the company that went well beyond expected duties. The expression did not come into use as a result of being handed down from management or supervision. It was an employee-to-employee idea, developed by the employees themselves. "I've just worked harder, longer, smarter than the airline expected me to do. And if necessary, I'll do the same again tomorrow." Clipper glory was an extraordinary dedication that developed at the island stations, Canton, Fiji, Midway, Wake, and Guam. The staff was usually quite small, and well aware that there was no second or third shift to relieve them. There was no other city nor other services to take care of the passengers, flight crew, or airplane. Employees stayed on duty until the work was done, the airplane repaired, the storm moved on, or whatever other interruption to scheduled service occurred. Clipper glory extended beyond company service to the island community as well. Often it was as if the island's reputation needed to be protected also. Frequently, volunteers from other agencies came forward to help with passenger care or entertainment.

In November 1985, the San Francisco Examiner had a Sunday feature article about the early days of flying boats and the later days of Clippers with propellers and wheels that quoted some Pacific aviators pioneers. One was Grant Wells who worked in the atolls and remembers the days of 'blood, sweat and tears."

There was a never-ending battle against nature, riding out typhoons in Quonset huts lashed to the ground with steel cables, racing to change an engine before the typhoon struck; saving a Boeing Clipper from a watery grave when she ran aground on a reef; crawling out on a wing to right a ship that had dipped its other wing into the bay.

Empires are not built without sacrifice. A lot of us make them. That was a part of what we called 'Clipper Glory.' I'm afraid it's lost forever.

The story of one such delayed Clipper at Canton is recounted here. This incident occurred very near to the end of the Pan Am's presence on the island.

A southbound Boeing Stratocruiser had an engine failure before landing at the island Stan Orrell wrote: "we had a spare engine but only two mechanics, so the delay was for about 30 hours." Stratocruiser piston engines were enormous in size and weight. The spare engines retained for replacement of such failures were stored "bare" at the station, requiring that the two mechanics remove some external components from the failed engine and to reinstall them on the station's bare spare. This was a common economical but time-consuming practice.

Orrell continues:

We had fifty some passengers with only dormitory facilities. Everyone on the island helped to entertain the passeng4ers - C.A.A., U.S.W.B., and Caltex. The flight got off and we sent to bed after some 40 hours straight. An hour or so later the phone rang. The airplane had lost another engine on the way to Fiji and was returning to Canton. We had no second spare engine. We were running short of passenger food. The next flight to be serviced was a QANTAS southbound due the following night. The pressure was great on the small and fatigued staff. During the returning Pam Am flight, Captain Pertman did a superb job in the sky, but you can imagine the attitude of the passengers when they landed and to one could tell them when they would get out. Now, Canton was not the tourist center of the world, but we managed to keep people semi-happy until we could get them off once again. Pan Am sent a DC-4 cargo air plane down from Honolulu with another engine and some mechanics. We had 'Clipper Canton Island' - so named by the passengers - enhancing our skyline for a total of five days.

Unfortunately, in all its wonderful, wilful overreaction, Clipper Glory did not survive into the jet age of flying great distances, nonstop, and therefore over former refueling atolls. However, before jet airlines came into service, there is a brief sequel to this "Clipper Canton Island" story. Pan American headquarters assigned the Douglas DC-7C to the South Pacific service. This airplane had a range that assured regular Honolulu-Fiji and Fiji-Honolulu service without an occasional need for a refueling stop at Canton. QANTAS's Constellatin gave no such assurance. Thus, the Australian airline became the service provider at the island and Pan Am sold its installation to its competitor. Stan Orrell explains:

We sold everything, homes, tools, food in the freezer, everything that Pan Am owned. A couple of my Fijian staff decided to stay and work for QANTAS. All other Pan Am people decided to return to Fiji, New Zealand, or Australia. A part of the deal was that they would provide emergency services to Pan Am. The two airlines just reversed roles. They sent down their station manager and regional manager to oversee the change over. They stayed with me in my former house and we gave each other a pretty hard time. They said that when they sent me off in first class I would see what a real airline could do, what real first class was. The QANTAS "Connie" took off, and an hour later they shut down, an engine and returned to Canton for a couple of hours with a mechanical delay. You can imagine the fun I had with them about a "real airline."

Astronautical Flights

There was a suddenness about the arrival of th4 jet age, which began on the North Atlantic in 1958. QANTAS needed only one short year, 1959, to find methods by which the Constellation's range could be extended by the addition of extended models thus avoiding the need for Canton refueling stops. Pan American start4ed service with jet-powered passenger airplanes. QANTAS followed within a year. Beginning in 1960, the island acquired a new role, one that4 was for different from servicing in-transit airplanes. Canton Island joined the space age. In just twn4y-one years, this mid-Pacific island raced from a barren atoll without even a harbor to support even the nautical world, to that of an active facility for the beginning of the space age. 

NASA and the Seabees

ONE of the early announcements came in an odd way. The U.S. Navy, Civil Engineering Corps, publisher of a bulletin called the CEC, included a notice, dated January 1960, and headlined: MCB-10 SEEBEES ASSIGNED TO MAN-IN-SPACE PROJECT. The notice then went on to state:

A space-age debut is in the offing in connection with the recent assignment of Mobile construction Battalion TEN to Canton Island, one of the links in Project MERCURY's "Man-in-Space" program. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the sponsoring organization, has requested the assistance of Pacific Seabees in connection with the construction phase of a Missile. Tracking Station to be established on Canton. It is Number Eleven in a series of stations to be established for use in conjunction with the "Man-in-Space" tracking project.

Scheduled to depart for the Canton site early in April, 1960 is a detqchment of approximately 75 men from Mobile Construction Battalion TEN. Their work will include the construction of camp facilities, living quarters, a telemetry and control building, a power plant, as well as road construction. The Battalion is currently under the command of CDR Norman L. Martinson, CEC, USN. 

The SEABEES had performed many construction projects in various locations from its beginnings in the Second World War and had done work at Canton before, building seaplane ramps and nose hangars on the southside, adjacent to the Pan American base.

A New Role for the C.A.A.

In the same month, the C.A.A. in Honolulu began to receive information on the shipment of equipment and electronics from suppliers on the mainland and destined for the Seabees at Canton. These were NASA procured items for Station Eleven. This new role for the C.A.A. was an efficient solution to a problem. The airport needed to be maintained for the coming NASA activity and also continuing occasional landings by non-scheduled flight users. Many of the tacking station installations were in the field of communications technology and equipment. The local C.A.A. people were already experts in this field and now they became, almost overnight, the host for a new U.S. government program of great importance. Canton was only a small element of the global system of NASA's tracking stations, but in 23 short years, the formerly barren atoll had advanced from an unpopulated island to a position of some importance in the effort to put a human into space.

The Global Reach

NASA's plan was to link some 26 primary and secondary tracking stations with the Mercury Control center. The center was first located at the Goddard Space Flight center in Maryland and later at Houston, Texas. The plan included voice radio and telemetry transmissions to and from the orbiting space capsule. The primary stations were given authority to make direct commands to the astronauts. Most tracking stations were also linked to Houston by radio and teletype as well. Initially, some were ships at sea, and some were located on islands in the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans. The orbital path of the spacecraft determined which of the 26 stations were to be involved in monitoring a given flight.

This elaborate worldwide plan took two years to complete during 1960-61. During this time, a momentous event occurred to accelerate its completion. The Soviet Union launched the world's first astronaut. Yuri Gagarin, into space orbit on 12 April 1961, followed three months later by Gherman Titov on a multiple-orbital mission that lasted more than 24 hours. 

The U.S. man-in-space program suddenly found itself well behind the Soviet Union effort. Both countries were involved in a highly hazardous and complex scientific enterprise. The NASA effort was slower as the Agency had taken elaborate precautions by continuous monitoring to protect the first astronauts from injury or death. The use of telemetry transmission of dat4a on the functioning of he spacecraft and the physical well-being of the astronauts gave a confidence to the program never before achieved in any endeavour. Collecting this real-time information from space was one of the outstanding technical achievement of the 20th Century.

The preparation costs were tremendous. Many scientists and technicians were committed to this effort, and these extended to continents and oceans around the globe. A simple example is cited concerning Canton's contribution by C.A.A. radio and electronics specialists. To bring the radio teletype service to a standard acceptable to NASA, the network (which included Nadi, Fiji) had to be upgraded. The radio station on the Fijian aeronautical network had to scrap all its vacuum-tube sending and receiving radios and install transistorized replacements. The New Zealand government was overseeing the Fiji station at that time, but not otherwise involved in the U.S. space program. How can other governments be persuaded to fund a U.S. space program? How many other tracking station administrators, less affluent than the United States, suffered the same problems of matching the high NASA standards? In summary, NASA had overlaid a system of well-functioning aeronautical support stations, but some network members had aeronautical standards that were in their own specifications books, not NASA's, but there were long-term benefits accruing to all nations, lasting into the 21st century in using the satellites and space images generated later in the space program. Weather maps about the globe on a real time basis, global positioning and navigational systems, making precise location information available to all mankind, telephonic and radio satellite-assisted communications world wide: all these were developed from those first exploratory steps taken in 1960-61. 


The Mercury flights got under way in 1961 but only after the two triumphs of orbital flight by the Soviet Union. The first two Mercury launches were planned to be sub-orbital, and were successful: Freedom 7, Alan Shepard, Jr., 5 May 1961, and Liberty Bell 7, Virgil Grissom, 21 July 1961. The U.S. was now ready to catch up with the earlier Russian successes with orbital flights, but seven months would elapse before the third series of Freedom launches. The F.A.A.'s support of NASA at Canton Island included frequent passenger and air cargo shipments using the F.A.A.'s assigned airplane. While this navigation aids at U.S. possessions in the Pacific, it also had the secondary role of logistics support. On these missions, local flying was often done to check the signal reliability of the approach and landing radio navigational aids, and also for flight crew training. The airplane assigned during this period was N116A, a Lockheed L-749A Constellation. ON 4 April 1962 this airplane was engaged in local flight crew training and was lost in a fatal accident. A brief summary of the accident report stated:

that the probable cause was "Loss of control following touchdown, as a result of an undetected reversal of No. 4 propeller" (Aviation Safety Network, Accident Description, CAB file No. 20564). There were five fatalities, but the resident medical officer, a passenger, survived.

Triumph Two

The preparations for the third Mercury mission, and the first orbital Mercury mission planned and designated Friendship 7, were even more elaborate that the original two. The press reporters had referred to the original two as "chip shots." Friendship 7 would test the space capsule's stability and maneuverability in the weightlessness of space. It would also test the astronaut's well-being, and his ability to perform numerous complex functions, and to report them via voice radio to the tracking station that he was crossing over. The tracking stations, in turn, relayed the results via telemetry. The "real time" transmission of data and recording was a second and subtle triumph, giving great confidence to future NASA missions into near space.   


Two months of delays and disappointments preceded John Glenn's lift-off from the Kennedy Space Center on 20 February 1962. From the first minutes after lift-off - the first minutes of the initial orbit were euphoria for Glenn, and routine for the tracking station's capcom, or capsule communicators - as each began to work through the check list of tasks which the astronaut was given to accomplish. In his own book, Glenn wrote later: "Telemetry was sending signals to the ground about my condition and the condition of the apsule. The capcom at the Canary Island station asked for a blood pressure check, and I pumped the cuff on my left arm. The EKG and biosensors were sending signals about my heartbeat, pulse, and respiration... "At 18.41 (minutes and seconds into the mission) I have a beautiful view of the African coast, both in the scope and out the window..."

"Your medical status is green," Canary capcom reported.

Over the Indian Ocean sunset came quickly to the capsule, followed by another well-being check over Australia with the report of no vision problems, no nausea or vertigo. Glenn related in his own memoir: "The experiment continued. Over the next tracking station, on a tiny coral atoll called Canton Island... I lifted the visor on my helmet and ate for the first time, squeezing some applesauce from a toothpaste-like tube into my mouth to see if weightlessness interfered with swallowing. It didn't."

And hour and fourteen minutes into the flight, I was approaching day again. I didn't have time to reflect on the magnitude of my experience, only to record its components as I reeled off the readings and performed the tests. The capcom at Canton Island helped me put it in perspective after I reported seeing through the periscope 'the brilliant blue horizon coming up behind me; approaching sunrise."

Capcom at Canton

Nearly every function at Canton Island was a coordinated community effort. In the "crossing over" of the space age, emphasis on precision and timing while on duty was demanding. Yet, off-duty time was spent in idyllic pursuits such as swimming, fishing, tennis, eating and drinking, and not least, watching the sun rise and descend at the same minute every day of the year. Jeffrey Burris was one of the communications operators who worked for the Bendix Corporation, a contractor to the Pacific Missile Range, Hawaiian Area, PMR, as most called it, in turn, had the responsibility of tracking for NASA missions. Burris wrote: "we tracked the Mercury capsules as they passed overhead from Darwin, Australia, to Hawaii. During a mission, capsule communicators came to Canton, especially trained to communicate directly with the astronauts. Our crew (Bendix) would support communications and telemetry, which monitored the functions of the capsule and the astronaut.

There were approximately 24 of us, not counting the capsule communicators who were on the island only when a mission was underway. For Friendship Seven, John Glenn, we had six in the communications section that included four technicians and two operators, and six in the telemetry section. There were ten in the power plant section: diesel operators and mechanics. Bendix had a maintenance and operations supervisor and for the PMR, a representative.

We tracked only Mercury capsules, but there was one other mission we supported. The Chance Vought company set up a site between us and the airstrip for a couple of weeks. They monitored a nuclear blast on Christmas Island. It was at night and we were all out at our site... It was really weird. From the north where th4e blast was, an aurora borealis type display developed from the horizon along the magnetic field from north to south. It developed along this narrow band and went overhead and to the south. It was beautiful, but very strange. We saw no signs of a blast nor did we hear anything; just this silent show of lights that grew out of the north and passed over our heads to the south. 

Fireflies to Thrusters

Completing the first circuit, astronaut Glenn has his own phenomenon to report.

Suddenly I saw around the capsule a huge field of particles that looked like tiny yellow stars. I talk3ed into the cockpit recorder about this mysterious phenomenon as I flew out of the range of Canton... I tried to describe them again, but Guaymas (Mexico) seemed interested only in giving me the retro sequence time, the precise moment the capsule's retro-rockets would have to be fired in case I had to come down after one orbit.

Orbits two and three were filled with tension as Glenn found that the capsule automatic controls were not behaving properly. The thrusters were using up too much fuel and not achieving course stability. Glenn switched back to manual control, turned the capsule around so that he was facing forward as a pilot would. He liked this attitude better. He also appreciated that he could control the capsule manually and save thruster fuel.

At Mercury Control, there was concern that the landing bag might be deployed - potentially a serious condition, if the indication was correct. It might interfere with the heat shield's protection of the capsule during re-entry into the earth's atmosphere. The landing bag was designed only to deploy and reduce the landing shock when the capsule splashed into the water, and has no function at any time before Glenn wrote:

The second dawn produced another flurry of luminescent particles. there all over the sky, I reported... The Canton Island capcom ignored the particles and asked me to report any sensations I was feeling from weightlessness. Then came an unprompted transmission. '
We also have no indication that your landing bag might be deployed. Over.' I had a prickle of suspicion. 'Did someone report landing bag could be down? Over.'

'Negative. We (Canton Island capcom) have a request to monitor this and to ask if you heard any flapping when you had high capsule rates.'

If suddenly made sense. They were trying to figure out where the particles had come from.

Mercury Control was slowly letting the astronaut know the nature of their concern about the landing bag and why it could interfere with a safe reentry, and of course, the re-entry occurred smoothly. Different reports said that splash-down occurred four miles off target, or six miles. Whether one or the other, it was a great tribute to NASA , John Glenn, and the many peoiple on tracking stations around the world and ships at sea. This successful three-orbit mission set the standard for the remaining Mercury program during 1962-3, which ended with the sixth and final manned flight on May 15-16 1963, a 34 hour mission to evaluate the effects of one day in space on astronaut L. Gordon Cooper Jr.

Before this find Mercury flight, NASA was already planning the next phase of the man-in-space program. Gemini was much more ambitious, calling for eight flights, one in October 1964 and four in each of the following years. New telemetry, voice radio, and communications capabilities would be required. The newly formed F.A.A. (from C.A.A.) had already decided to cease operating from Canton Island and to move its flight service responsibilities to American Samoa. NASA reluctantly became the U.S. host agency at Canton, beginning 30 June 1965. NASA also found that its new communications equipment would permit the space program to operate safely with fewer tracking stations. While the Pacific Missile Range would continue to have a presence on the island, the tracking of missiles and spacecraft had now diverged in character to the extent that the missions of each were no longer compatible. Manned space capsule tracking and communications were beginning to be centralized. NASA operated and maintained the air navigation aids at Canton for the F.A.A. until the Gemini program ended with GT-11 in November.  

Again a Ghost Town?

Only a week or so after the F.A.A. discontinuation of activities at Canton, and in July 1965, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin sent a reporter down to write an article about the "demise" of Canton. The full-page article was published on 7 July and carried a headline that read: "Lonely Canton Isle, Again a Ghost Town."

The description of notable island events of the past included earlier F>A>A. pictures taken by George Miyachii, includeing an aerial shot of the island, with Tabunawati Takoa, the D.O., admiring a portrait of Queen Elizabeth and one of George Avery, F.A.A., holding a flying fish with wings extended. The text of the article included the fact that George Avery had done service at the island during the Second World War, had returned in 1956 for a one-year assignment with F.A.A., but had stayed on until his retirement in July 1960. This extension of time in residence definitely set a record. George was the perennial assistant island manager. 

While Topham Field, Canton Island, was relegated to emergency airport status, beginning in 1968, the F.A.A. and the government of American Samoa maintained a caretaker role during 1968, as salvaged equipment was removed from the island to Western Samoa. From this action, it could be assumed that the U.S. government presence at Canton was at an end, and that of the British condominium presence as well. There was no reason for the Gilbertese people to stay. The international post office was removed and the British District Officer transferred. There was no activity, no work to sustain the small colony. However, its character and position renewed itself yet again, and almost immediately.

From a summary made by Robert Bicket, Historian, Headquarters Space and Missile Test Center, in January 1971, the next action concerning the future of Canton is revealed. "By the time this salvage operation was nearing completion, a potential new American military use was projected. Hence, to ensure and maintain United States control and to safeguard the residue of facilities, equipment, and material pending authorization for this use, the Air Force arranged in the fall of 1968 for a small security force of American Samoans to remain at the location. The caretaker arrangement continued until initial Space and Missile Test Center (SAMTEC) deployment at its Canton Island Operation Location on 18 September 1970. With diplomatic permission given by Britain, it was assigned to operate at Canton with auxiliary airfields and tracking facilities as other Phoenix Islands: namely Birnie, Enderbury, and Hull SAMTEC was a newly consolidated Air Force organization under the Air Force System Command, Vandenberg AFB, California. A contract was awarded to Kentron Hawaii, Ltd, for logistics and base support at Canton. In January 1971, operational readiness texts on the initial support configuration in the Phoenix Islands were carried out. A new type of air transportation, the helicopter, was utilized extensively. It needed only a cleared pad, not a runway. The short flights to the auxiliary islands were "range-comfortable" for this newly developed passenger and cargo carrier. The use of helicopters was aided by the number of pilots and maintenance personnel who were trained and available, reflecting their previous training and extensive deployment in and after the Viet Nam War. Whether working for a military contractor as a civilian, or wearing an Air Force uniform, their helicopter skills and training contributed to a safer operation in a largely "over-water" environment.

An Environmental Survey of Canton Atoll Lagoon - 1973

The above sub-heading is also the exact title for the scientific survey and report conducted that year. The report was published in 1976 and was 185 pages in length. Brief excerpts and facts are paraphrased or quoted below.

The research was conducted by personnel of the Marine Environmental management Office, Naval Undersea Center, Hawaiian Laboratory, and by scientific personnel from the University of Hawaii, and from Kelly AFB., Texas. The major visit to Canton took place in November-December 1973. There were other visits in individual scientific fields during June 1972 and again after the main study period.

The objectives of the survey of the Canton Island lagoon was undertaken to determine the distribution of abiotic environmental variables and biotic responses to these variables (abiotic meaning non-living substances, or environmental factors). Specifically, there was an attempt to find what effects, if any, human influences had had on the atoll through the years of the Second World War and occupation afterwards.

The Canton lagoon is almost completely landlocked, but with a single pass on the western side of the atoll... The lagoon physiography and biota can be described in terms of four zones: the Pass Zone within 2 km of the pass; the Line Reef Zone within 2 to 8 km of the pass with linear reefs; the Back Lagoon Zone encompassing the most distant south and west areas; and the Altered Zone with a man-made causeway connecting two islets and blocking the tidal flow.

Water is exchanged between the ocean and lagoon by tidal flushing at this single pass. Flushing is most efficient near the pass. Throughout the rest of the lagoon flushing is accomplished less rapidly by tidal and wind mixing. During the time of this survey, and apparently under most conditions at Canton, there is an excess of evaporation over rainfall. Hence, salinity in the back lagoon is high, and well above oceanic values.

The distribution patterns of the three main groups of organisms were examined corals, fishes, and micro-mollusks. A total of 82 coral species were found. 'Fishes identified at Canton numbered 264 species from 50 families. Of mollusks, a total of 90 were recorded. And in summary: the lagoon biota becomes progressively less diverse with distance from the pass. Because of the enclosed lagoon's area at 50 square kilometers, qualitative sampling techniques were employed especially with regard to corals. 

This report also included: water composition, rainfall history records, and lagoon physiography; water depth in the lagoon is about six meters, but is highly variable. The spectacular coral gardens are located less than 500 meters to the east of Spam Island, and the Thornet reef about 1,000 meters to the north. Both of these underwater coral areas were a diverse delight for divers, hosting colorful growth of every hue and shape.

Natural and Unnatural Bounty

In addition to extensive scientific investigation as to the question of changes that mankind may have made to animal and plant life at Canton Island, another effort was made to protect the ecological purity of the island. It was a part of the plan to remove or destroy "exotics," or introduced organisms (plants and animals) that might alter the natural balance. The removal of exotics was being advocated by numerous scientists at a number of Pacific Island locations. As islands returned to less intensive use, and human populations declined, it was possible to return some islands to a so-called "natural state." Palmyra and Midway Island, U.S. possessions, are atolls where such an effort has been made.

At Canton, the most disruptive of the introduced species was the dog. A few well-cared-for and well-fed pet dogs posed no upset to the island ecology, but canines left behind by their owners had led to a decline in shore bird and sea turtle populations. As some shore birds lay eggs directly on the ground with no elevation above the ground, hungry dogs often ate too many eggs. Feral canines were first noticed in 1946, probably left behind by the U.S. Army's Canine Corps, used in 1942-43 to patrol the shores at night. They were occasionally observed along the lagoon shore. Almost unbelievably, thee were sightings of dogs swimming across the lagoon from north to south. Apparently sharks were unfamiliar with the type of catch and ignored the four-legged swimmers. But the six knots of tidal flow through the ship's channel may have claimed a few canine victims before these wily animals learned to avoid the outgoing tidal flow, too powerful for even strong human swimmers.

As mentioned in the previous chapter, the Steinhart Aquarium of San Francisco had acquired a number of fish from the Canton Island lagoon in the 1950s. Now, in the late 1970s, the aquarium was again in need of small shark specimens for tank display. U.S. Air Force Missile Range personnel accompanied and sponsored the visit. A Steinhart party visit was led by Dave Powell, Curator, accompanied by the Director of the Waikiki Aquarium, Leighton Taylor, an aquarist, Ralph Alexander at Waikiki, and Lester Gunther, who later wrote an article (Sept. 1977 for Pacific Discovery magazine), describing the success of the visit.

Because of costs and space limitations, the capture of small specimens was very important. During preliminary diving observation, some large sharks were encountered and eliminated from the list of possible captures. But the group did find seven species that cruised the shallows and were of capture size and suitable for transportation. These were black-tip, reef white tip, oceanic white tip, gray reef, hammerhead, and lemon shark species. The a2wuarium group found that the baby black-tips and lemons, approximately three feet long, inhabited the shallows along the shores of the lagoon. The group could stand on the beach and observe the movement of these specimens so they cruised close to the shore, indicating that their capture would be simple. Lester Gunther writes: "So much for theory."

Rather than reacting to the skirmish line of fish catchers agitating the prey in the ankle deeps to knee deep water while trying to drive the catch into an unseen net set at the beach, the sharks curled off in many directions. They did not have a herding instinct. Gunther states:

Our line of five screaming, splashing, stumbling beaters ended up tangled in the net suffering from exhaustion and coral cuts while our prey resumed their meandering elsewhere.

Next time we decided to use finesse rather than force, and we coaxed the sharks into the net by advancing on them slowly, thus not bringing them to a state of frantic, activity. Their first intimation of real danger would be when they hit th4e net-but it would be too late to escape as we would be there to capture them.

We re-entered the water and slowly drove the fishes to the net. It worked rather well except that upon bumping the net the sharks immediately took off at full power in every other direction...only one shark became engaged in the net and we captured. This second method had resulted in a 100% improvement, we continued to use it for the balance of that day as well as the next. We wanted to capture a minimum of 14 sharks - but after two days we had been able to secure only eight.

On the third day, the aquarium group had other work to do, but persuaded Gunther to continue the shark hunt. He in turn secured some help from a local Air Force representative and an island native, Tonga John, and his dog Blackie. They loaded the net and the holding boxes in a truck and drove down the island to a location with shoal water and, most important, meandering sharks. While Tonga John and Gunther were engaged in unloading the net and boxes they were startled to see Blackie swiftly moving about the water. When the men got to the shore they could see Blackie, "tail wagging, and standing near us on the shore and with a very uncomfortable shark lying by his side. Tonga John advised me that catching sharks was Blackie's favorite game... I inspected the shark and noted that there wasn't a mark on him. The labrador ancestor had bequeathed Blackie a soft mouth and he had retrieved the fish as though it were delicate spun glass."

Thanks to the black lab's fishing skills, the aquarium party returned to Hawaii with a bounty of sharks and no more coral cuts. Sadly, however, the Gunther article indicates that the last female labrador was deliberately killed, resulting in a slow extinction of this exotic population. Blackie lived on the Canton Island was being returned to its natu4ral state where birds and sea turtles could once again thrive, without a decimating number of predators. Two short years later, Canton and the other seven member islands of the Phoenix group became a part of the new Central Pacific nation, the Republic of Kiribati with its capital in Betio, Tarawa. (Bairki is now the capital...)

Landing at the Canton Crossroads

Civil aviation advances at the beginning of the second half of the 20th century accelerated in many aspects, technical and human. Newly-designed airliners landed on reconstructed wartime runways. Designs of radio and radio navigation equipment moved forward to match the safety of efficiencies of airborne and ground-based support equipment. The manning of passenger airplanes changed with the installation of advanced aids to flight safety, and improvements to passenger comfort. Islands in mid-Pacific were hard pressed to keep pace to match the advancing technical standards. Canton remained in a somewhat clouded conflict between the "what was" of wartime exigencies, and the new civil, environment of more concern for people. This was not an easy conflict to resolve on a naked, once over-crowded, and now lightly-populated island oasis. Many of those who landed at the Canton crossroads during the 1948-58 period discovered that they were not alone in nation-to-nation encounters taking place throughout the world. These diminished the financial resources available for reconstruction and redevelopment of Pacific-island airport under U.S. management. The Berlin Airlift and the Korean War diverted such United States resources as a matter of national priorities.

The L-49 Lands Lands

In 1949, the first civilian commercial airliner, a Lockheed Constellation, landed at Canton Island. This was more than a year before the4 lone runway, only a sea-spray distance from the water was paved. This was significant as it marked the beginning of a steady advance in technology, and improved safety and comfort for the traveler. The southbound ferry flight of this Australian QANTAS L-49 opened up the Pacific skies. The Lockheed was an introduction to fully pressurized cabins, "opening up" the skies above the 12,000-foot level that were hitherto inaccessible to passenger airliners. The flight crew could seek higher altitudes for more favorable winds (shortened flight time) and a smoother ride for the passengers (an expanded sky, less prone to turbulent, in which to avoid turbulence). However, the technically-advanced airplane and its crew also became subject to the beginnings of airways traffic control such as assigned altitudes and tracks over the formerly uncontrolled airspace. All flights were given radio reporting times and were required to make an actual position report for each hour. The safety of all passenger flights was steadily improved.

When the QANTAS captain taxied his shiny new airplane to the ramp in front of the Canton terminal building it was signaled to park behind a Pan Am DC-4 being refueled and serviced. Occasionally, the airport did have two flights at one time, but there was adequate maneuvering and parking space for more than two large airplanes. The L-49 commander had "a fuel and go" attitude. full fuel tanks, a cursory look at the current weather map, and newly filed flight plan these were the extent of his transit requirements. Nadi, Fiji, another bed away from home, was on his mind. Within thirty minutes after parking, all his needs were met. He and the whole ferry crew re-boarded and methodically checklisted their way through to engine start. After all four engines were idling, the captain signalled to have the main landing gear wheel chocks removed. Then, with an action that only a hermit crab seeking a new home would understand, his throttle hand put the propellers in reverse thrust, he applied engine power, and began backing up the Constellation a short distance. A great cloud of coral dust was sent skyward. Ramp workers and watchers were caught up on this tropical white-out. Another technical advance was demonstrated, if somewhat ill-timed and at the least-prepared terminal ramp for such an innovation.

The addition of propeller thrust-reversers led to a significant safety improvement in the after-landing roll of passenger airplanes. Airplane wheel brakes gained a longer useful life. The pilot that a back-up system for bringing the airplane to a stop from a high landing speed. Landings on wet or icy runways were made more safely. The thrust reverser also saved some runway construction costs as its reliability reduced the need for longer, and longer runway lengths. But, people near airports have never been successfully shielded from the high decibel sound of "going into reverse."

The dust from crushed coral, ground fine by many truck and airplane wheels over a period of years, had been a source of concern for the military, and later for the civil, island residents. The northwest corner of the island was to the windward and therefore more vulnerable to picking up whatever lay on the surface. It was not a healthy environment for people, airplanes, or equipment. In a 1949 letter to the regional administrator of the C.A.A. in Honolulu, Hiram Broiles (supervisory agent for flight activities over Pan American's Pacific Division) said:

I refer to the paving of the ramp area at Canton. Mr. Nichols advises that he has... approximately 30,000 gallons of bunker "C" oil with a relatively high asphalt content which may be used as a dust palliative...

Broiles then indicated that the ramp was not scheduled to be paved until 1951, nearly two years later, because of the lack of funds. Appropriations for airport essentials continued to come slowly from Washington D.C., even though the pace of technical improvements to flight equipment and the need for essential ground equipment continued to accelerate. This serious safety mismatch was to continue for a number of years.

Flight Deck Changes

During this same period, Pan American Airways began to make a major change in the composition of its flight crew. Radio operators were no longer used. Their function were taken over by the pilots, now using long-range voice radio with ground control stations. Morse code was a thing of the past. With a network of stations in various locations, a full-time reliable method of reporting was established. The C.A.A. and Pan Am cooperated in bringing this method of ground control into being all across the Pacific Ocean.  

At the same time, Pan Am trained all its second officer pilots in navigation duties. The cockpit became an all-pilot domain except for the flight engineer. Some long-time professional navigators from the flying boat era were assigned to ground functions, retired, or moved on to the family of non-scheduled carriers that had developed, partly from the enormous logistics requirements of the Korean war.

Layover rest for flight personnel at Canton was discontinued in 1947, as they adapted to a longer duty day on flights from Honolulu, through Canton, and onto Nadi, Fiji. With unpressurized DC-4s, this was physically demanding. The combination of ground and flight duties often exceeded seventeen hours. In consequence, the rest period at Fiji was increased, usually to two full days. The crew rest bunks, installed just forward of the passenger cabin and just behind the pilot's seats, were used on every flight. In the passenger cabin, the two flight attendants offered pillows and encouraged rest. In an airplane restricted to flying at 10,000 feet or at flight levels just below that, and on this combination of two flight segments totaling more than fifteen hours, the lack of pressurization was fatiguing. The stewardesses took naps themselves, taking turns in watching over the cabin. These long flight times were not uncommon to Pan Am cockpit personnel as many had routinely experienced such duty times in the slower flying boats of war time.

But the midnight boat-ride across the lagoon was missed by all. Uniquely Pan Am's Gilbert Island workers spontaneously and in recording-quality harmony, Good Night Ladies, audible above the drone of the boat's engines, was long remembered.

Canton's Birds - The True Inhabitants

The many references to guano in Chapter 2 showed that bird life had been abundant at Canton for thousands of years. The first scientific investigator of the bird life of the island was J. J. Lister, who was aboard H.M.S. Egeria, under the command of Commander Oldham, visited Canton while on a Royal Navy cruise, to map and annex islands of the central Pacific when the vessel's crew visited the island in June 1889. Young naturalist Lister was aboard and made the pioneering observations of the bird life on the island and his notes were recorded in the proceedings of the Zoological Society of London. Another early scientific observer E. H. Bryan Jr. (1924 and 1937) of the Bishop Museum of Honolulu. Scientists from the eclipse expedition of 1937 and various personnel from the Denver Museum of Natural History studied the bird life in the 1950s.

After the eclipse expedition of 1937 there was a gradual increase in human disturbance of the shore bird colonies on the southwest side of the island. Early interference came from dynamiting the coral heads in the lagoon in 1938-1940, the building of the Pan Am flying boat base, and the activities of Army Corps of Engineers in building the landplane runway on the northside. Greater disturbances then occurred and accelerated after January 1942. The military build up of personnel, heavy construction equipment, field artilery practice, airplane takeoffs and landings, K-9 Corps night security, dog patrols: all these came close to destroying the habitat for shore bird colonies. The competition for space - lagoon waters, land, shore feeding areas, and secure nesting sites increased rapidly. The 3.5 square miles of coral became an unnatural space, overburdened by human activities. The birds either fled by flying 40 miles southeast to Enderbury Island or they remained at Canton, did not breed, and their colonies died out. Even Enderbury became inhospitable after the first year of the war.

Bird life slowly returned after the departure of the military in 1946, but this recovery took a number of years. Fortunately, scientific observers could occasionally witness and catalogue the restoration of natural bird life. This had to follow the renewal of the feeding, breeding, and nesting habitat, mostly shrubs, vines, and small trees that had been destroyed during the build up of military facilities. Curiously, the dredging of the ship channel that created Spam Island isolated it so as to create a ;small bird sanctuary, with daily tidal flows limiting access on either side. With the decline of human activity, bird populations flourished in the 1950s. Various scientific studies recorded 27 species as resident or in migration. Fir the purposes of this book three species will represent the whole avian family at Canton Island. The frigate, the fairy tern and the golden plover serve to represent some of the more interesting features of bird life on this remote and isolated piece of land in the vast Pacific Ocean.

The Frigate (Fregata minor palmerstoni)

The study of these birds by scientists of the Denver Museum states that resident frigate birds are "the most conspicuous if not the most abundant birds on Canton." The 1954 report calls them the "Pacific Man o'War." Dictionaries and bird books frequently refer to this species as "robbers" or "predatory and thieving in behavior." Dominant in size, superior in flight maneuver and in their thievery, helpless on water and awkward on the coral sand, the Frigate uses its flight skills in overcoming other handicaps, and also those limitations imposed by this small island's habitat. Perching and nesting often takes place on low and scraggly scaevola bushes. Sometimes the nests or perches are only are only two feet off the coral. Despite their reputation as thieves and predators in the air, their behavior on the nest or perch is tolerant of other species, almost gregarious. Nesting and perching red-footed boobies, or fledging and non-breeding fregata do not evince resentment by breeding pairs crowded onto the same limb or bush. However, both males and females of breeding pairs are zealous in guarding the nest before the single egg is laid, during incubation and in the initial care of the single chick. The male frigate often sits on the nest continuously several days before his mate takes over for egg-laying and initial incubation. He displays prominently with red gular sac extended and becomes the initial guard of the nest's integrity. This sentry duty is thus taught to and leaned by every frigate as it matures. One observer records that "youthful and presumably non-breeding birds showed this propensity quite as much as adults. They would even fight for one another's (nest material) loot in the air. Two were seen in a tug of war for a long piece of dry vine. They struggled in the air, with an intermingling of long black wings, until one bird was pulled upside down, whereupon it get go."

The reference to "a long black wing" is often repeated in descriptions by trained observers. Mature birds, both male and female, have an extended span of between five and a half to six and a half feet. In overall measurements, the female birds are slightly larger than the males. Another observer wrote: "the man o' wars have long slender wings and forked tails, so they are extremely graceful in flight, often drifting along with no apparent movement of outstretched wings - they just sail along effortlessly riding the air currents." But this brief description does not include the serious handicap these proud fliers have. They do not have oil glands to protect wing feathers from the intrusion of water. Frigates quickly founder on the sea surface. Thus, over the ocean, their behavior is fly or founder. Accordingly, their feeding behavior is predatory in every sense. They steal and eat the young of other birds, and on occasion the helpless members of their own kind. The frigate is a friend of the boobie on the porch at night, but will steal the boobie's food by day. They harass the boobie in the air until the helpless bird upchucks his gullet of fish. Then, by a spectacular maneuver, the thief recovers the meal before it falls to the sea. Frigates do engage in surface fishing, but by only wetting their talons )as the North American bald eagles do) in a surface glide above the water.

Gilbert islanders capture and train some frigates, and have been known to have a "carrier pigeon service" by flying notes from one island to another. In recent years, the new nation of Kiribati has adopted this magnificent flyer as a national symbol.

The Pacific Golden Plover (Plauvialis fulvia)

The pacific golden plover is often placed in bird books along with what ornithologists term as "waders." To the uninitiated in avian lexicon this envisages the plover as a bird that digs in the flats at the shore, up to its knees in mud - a somewhat sedentary image. The pacific golden plover does not display that type of behavior. It is a colorful migrant, among the swiftest of fliers, and capable of flying over continent or ocean for two days continuously without rest. Its navigational skills are exceptional. These birds can easily spend time on three different continents in one year by fattening up on the east coast of Australia, breeding in the Arctic, and flying back "down under: via the coast of Siberia and China. Many birds make annual journeys of a similar nature throughout the Americas, Europe, and Asia, but none so spectacular as the pacific golden plover. 

Other members of the plover genus have less colorful breeding plumage, and, a bird watcher would not see them at Canton. Thus, it is fair to ask, why would an observer see the golden at Canton if they are intercontinental fliers? The answer appears to be competition for food of their liking. Plovers feed on insects, invertebrates, spiders, berries, and occasionally crustaceans. The bird colonies at Canton feed mainly from the sea, therefore there are no competitors for land-based foragers. The migrants must be specialist that drop from the sky into an environment where they know there will be food of their liking, and most of all, readily available. This applies to plovers in particular, as they may have just completed a non-stop flight of two or three thousand miles. Observers at Canton Island were startled to see this bird with the gold, speckled-back poking about in the foliage on the coral. This was regarded as a unusual behavior for a "wader." Closer observation revealed that the migrant was searching out skinks. The plover did not want the skink for a meal especially, but only his tail. This small reptilian creature, living in abundance on the island, obligingly drops off his tail as an escape mechanism. golden plovers are habituated to this, fatten up for a few days on reptilian tails, and then take off again for Hawaii or the coasts of eastern Australia. Scientific observers Dr. and Mrs. Murphy related that the birds spent much more time in the hot and dry places, scantily overgrown with low woody shrubs of mallow, than they did along the shores of the lagoon. They skittered about rapidly and every now and then made darts to seize, mouth, and swallow a lizard. Residents related that specimens shot for food had sometimes proved to be crammed with lizards or the cast off tails of lizards. 

It is of interest to recognize what is going on here. The migration of the pacific golden plover, possibly over many millennia, has adapted to long range flight and in a short, high-speed travel time. The golden plovers evolved into seeking an almost perpetual summer by living in the Arctic, in total sunlight for a part of the year while raising their chick, and in seeking nearly the same environment on the coasts of eastern Australia. The golden has learned to take on fuel (food, skin tails) on route while avoiding the congestion and delay brought about by competition for food in the avian world. It has learned to fly at high altitude, navigate at night over the ocean, fly (migrate) in a flock, yet establish an individual territory during nesting. It has remained gregarious and friendly on several continents, acquiring a familiar name in many locales, from the French, "a rain bird"; in Hawaii, it is "Kolea" - boastful, one who takes an leaves, to the Alaskan native, it is "tussiik" or "tullik," imitating the bird's call.

Homo sapiens has accomplished many of Plauvialis fulvia's behavior activities. But he did it in half a century and not over several millennia. 

A Final Tribute

......The Pacific Ocean was conquered by confident men who made careful plans, and employed well the meager technical resources available to them. Most of all, the participants recognized the importance of tightly-coordinated teamwork in flight. The cockpit crews who followed the Rodgers effort were made as safe as they insisted on, and used all the latest developments in science and technological advancement. Th4ese included weather observation and reporting, aids and navigation, frequent radio reporting indicating position, radio broadcast course guidance, communication with surface shipping, engine care and management, and careful fuel use.

In each of the flight conduct regimes mentioned above, Lester Maitland and Albert Hegenberger made full use of every flight safety resource that the U.S. armed services had developed before 1927. this is the reason that the text heading introducing this flight refers to Maitland as "Master". Kingsford-Smith innovated in another way. He employed mature and experienced experts in navigation and radio, albeit from backgrounds far different from those of copilot Charles Ulm and himself. None of the non-pilot crew members had any flying experience when chosen. However, as with all successful exploratory and conquest ventures, the element of strong and confident leadership played the paramount role.

Whales and Wilkes

Before the conquest of the Pacific by air, earlier pioneers had set a fine example of courage, initiative, and leadership.

The Whaling ship Canton of 1854 had an experienced captain and mate who appeared to have a fully competent and compatible crew. The Sylvanus Longley narrative carefully points out that only he and two other seamen were from villages around New Bedford, Massachusetts. A two-year voyage into the Pacific Ne4eded a crew who could work closely together. Longley makes clear that the crew did so. Even when poor charts, faulty navigation, and a tropical storm destroyed the Canton on the reef at Canton Island, this crew clung together. Experience, training, discipline, and strong leadership helped all hands to survive the daunting 48 days in the three open whaleboats as Captain Wing ordered: "stay together", and the boats did. Once again, failure bre4d success.

The Wiles expedition of 1842 is also a classic textbook example of command, communication, and leadership. Five Navy ships sailed the largely uncharted eastern Pacific for three years without losing a single seaman or vessel. These ships, operating independently most of the time, explored areas from the coast of Antarctica to the coast of Oregon and charted almost three hundred islands in between. The most valuable peacetime venture remains unchallenged in U.S. naval history.

A century after the Wiles Expedition, and between 1937 and 1940, Canton island was explored, used and occupied by men of different nations with differing missions. The eclipse observation was bold and successful. It likewise involved international cooperation, and the participation of several nations and agencies within those countries. The live radio broadcast of the event to North America gave scientists unusual opportunities for exchanges of information and data. It also became the event of positive force in the establishment of the island's unique condominium status. This solar eclipse event was followed two years later by the formalizing of sovereignty arrangement between the United States and the United Kingdom. One year later the island's small complement of personnel successfully rescued the crew of the freight ship the Admiral Day.

Wartime Contributions

Another part of this conquest and advancement came into being as a result of the Second World War when the challenge to cooperation and coordination in the Pacific became paramount. The movement of transport airplanes and personnel, combat replacement airplanes, and ever-increasing aviation fuel farm requirements: all were vital to the ever-moving island sit4es of war. These enormous demands replaced the once-a-week flights of Pan American Clippers to New Zealand and (later) Australia. The newly-scraped coral, land-plane runway of December, 1941 transformed the air transport activity from one seaplane flight per week to 150 land-plane movements per week. As island with little developed resources for people and hundreds of airplanes increased from a A Pan Am staff of only 22 in 1940 (on the day of Admiral Day foundering) to a population of more than 4,000 military) men during the three years following. This activity occurred at many Pacific islands during the same period, but Canton was the first atoll to experience such a dramatic acceleration during World War II.

The Canton land-plane runway became operational in mid-January 1942, only 39 days after the U.S. declaration of war on Japan. though lacking a timely decision to develop this strategically placed island runway, the defensive, and later offensive, phases of the Pacific war of 1942-45 might well have stretched to several years longer with attendant increases in lives lost and war-wasted finances mounting.

yet another fact is buried more deeply in history. E. H. Bryant visited barren Canton Island with a scientific expedition in 1922. On this exploration he took note of the condition of the northeast tip of the island. It was flat, treeless and with only a sparse and low growth of grass and small shrubs. Six years later, while working as a curator at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, Bryan gave sound advice to Charles Kingsford-Smith that this part of Canton would be a safe emergency landing site should the Southern Cross have engine trouble or be short of fuel to reach Suva, Fiji. The extraordinary idea of a future land-plane runway was therefore conceived some twenty years before its great day of need.

Canton Island (Kiribati)
Aerial Crossroads of the South Pacific

Canton Island, Phoenix Group, Kiribati

Kiribati Home Page

Pacific Islands Radio Stations

Jane Resture's Oceania Page

Jane's Oceania Travel Page

(E-mail: -- Rev. 20th September 2005)

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